Courtesy of Bernie Baker
Paring to Perfection

French author and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery once noted that perfection is attained not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. That belief fits Brewer’s shaping ethos as snugly as a wet suit.

“It takes time to find out what really works,” Brewer says. “It’s empirical. I only make one change at a time, so I know what it does to a board.”

It takes Brewer about 12 hours or so to fashion a custom balsa-wood board (he scores his balsa from Ecuador) and three hours to shape a foam board. He owns about 50 templates, or patterns, some dating back to the early 1960s.

Brewer completes surfboard with his signature
Courtesy of Bernie Baker
To start, Brewer makes like a seamstress, laying a template — made from one-sixteenth-inch-thick mahogany plywood — on a blank (a piece of foam or balsa wood). After tracing the template with a pencil, he cuts out the shape with a jigsaw.

Then, armed with some hand tools and a 50-year-old Skil electric planer, and with Hawaiian music playing in the background, the intuitive artistry that he calls “an exotic form of sculpture” begins.

Generally speaking, Brewer says a board should resemble the customer: short and fat boards for short and heavy people, long and narrow boards for tall and slim people, and so forth.

“The final blending of all those things, plus their abilities and what they need, is what shapes a board,” he says. “It’s got to have bite, but not so much that it hangs up. That’s something you learn over time.”

Shaping Nirvana

Much of the shaping magic happens in an air-conditioned, 240-square-foot building on Brewer’s small farm; sometimes he shapes in another facility on Oahu. The entire room is painted black and well lit, so the boards contrast sharply with the background, enhancing visibility. Several lights are wall-mounted about chest high because side lighting makes minute imperfections easier to spot, he says.

“There’s nothing like a nicely squared-up room, so your eyes don’t look at anything off perpendicular,” he notes. “I can tell whether a board is flat or slightly domed. To my eyes, even a rise of fifteen-hundredths of an inch looks like a giant bump.”

How does he know when he’s finished? It’s all about feel and  intuition. “If it looks right and feels right, it surfs right,” he says.

When Brewer is finished, he neatly writes his signature in pencil on the board and sends it off to be glassed (coated with fiberglass). These days, Brewer shapes roughly 200 boards a year for $500 a pop, with no plans to quit any time soon.

“I still love it,” he says. “It still excites me, it really does, when one of my boards maneuvers exactly like someone wants it to — that it’s right on the money for that dude.”

After 20,000 boards and counting, practice does, it seems, make perfect.